Understanding Talent Development: Insights from Japanese Major League Baseball Players and
Medical Doctors in Japan
Masahiro Kami, M.D., Ph.D.
President, Medical Governance Research Institute, Tokyo, Japan
Exploring Talent Development through the world of baseball
Since establishing a research laboratory at the Institute of Medical Science, University of Tokyo (UTokyo) in October 2005, I have continued to engage in activities as a clinician, researcher, and educator alongside my clinical practice. I possess a keen interest in the methods of talent development across diverse domains, with my most recent intrigue being the world of baseball.
The prevalence of Japanese players excelling in the American Major League Baseball (MLB) is no longer a rarity, and this spring in 2023, the Japanese team emerged victorious in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). This is a phenomenon that was unimaginable back in the 1970s when I first developed an interest in baseball. This article aims to explore my theory of talent development using the MLB as a case study, which I believe can also apply to talent cultivation in medical and local community contexts.
Mr. Sawai: A Journey from High School Baseball to Sports Management
Among my acquaintances is Mr. Yoshinobu Sawai, a manager of professional athletes like Koji Uehara and Seiya Suzuki (Chicago Cubs), through his company, Sports Backs. Mr. Sawai himself is deeply rooted in baseball. In 1998, as the captain of Kyoto Seisho High School, he participated in the Japanese High-School Baseball Championship Koshien tournaments in spring and summer. His team advanced to the final in the summer tournament, only to be defeated by Yokohama High School, which boasted pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. After high school, he continued to play baseball at Doshisha University and as an adult, and now he is running a sports management company.
Mr. Sawai posits an intriguing viewpoint, stating, "Many athletes with superior physical attributes are languishing in the minor leagues. Many of those who excel in the major leagues do not necessarily possess extraordinary physical capabilities."
Decoding the Success of Japanese Players in MLB
Currently, the 8 Japanese players in MLB include Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels), Yu Darvish (San Diego Padres), Masataka Yoshida (Boston Red Sox), Seiya Suzuki (Chicago Cubs), Kenta Maeda (Minnesota Twins), Yusei Kikuchi (Toronto Blue Jays), Kodai Senga (New York Mets), and Shintaro Fujinami (Oakland Athletics). As far as can be observed from MLB broadcasts, none of these players are extraordinarily physically endowed when compared to their major league counterparts. There are indeed players within Japan who surpass them in physical abilities.
What Mr. Sawai emphasizes is the "ability to think for oneself". Undeniably, from Hideo Nomo in the past to the present-day Shohei Ohtani, the image of successful Japanese players in MLB diverges from the stereotypical sports-club mentality of unquestioning obedience to a coach's commands.
Nurturing Independent Thinking in Athletes
So, the question arises, how does one cultivate the ability to think independently? Mr. Sawai suggests that it requires "experiencing failures at a young age and subsequently overcoming them".
Recently, the established American media outlet, Sporting News, published a feature article entitled "Ranking the Best Japanese Players in MLB History". In this article, Ichiro Suzuki took the top spot, followed by Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Hiroki Kuroda, Koji Uehara, Masahiro Tanaka, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Indeed, many of these players were not super elites from a young age. Of these ten, the only ones who had experienced winning a championship in the national high school baseball tournament in spring or summer by the time they graduated were Hiroki Kuroda from Uenomiya High School (Osaka, champion in spring 1993), Ichiro from Aikodai Meiden High School (champion in spring 2005), and Masahiro Tanaka from Komadai Tomakomai High School (summer champions in 2004 and 2005).
Even though these are Uenomiya, Aikodai Meiden, and Komadai Tomakomai High Schools, they are not superstar assemblies like the former PL Academy and Yokohama High School or the current Osaka Toin High School, where multiple players get drafted in higher rounds.
Ichiro, Nomo, Kuroda, Uehara, and Iwakuma were not well-known until their high school days. Kuroda and Uehara were even backup pitchers. Uehara, after taking a year off, went on to study at Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences, which is not a prestigious baseball university. The Senshu University, where Kuroda went, was also in the second division of the Tokyo University Baseball League at that time. Neither seemed to attract much attention in the college baseball world.
Overcoming Adversity: The Unconventional Paths of Japanese MLB Legends
Ichiro Suzuki's path was no different. During his third year in high school, he participated in the Spring Koshien as a pitcher, but was defeated in the first round by Matsusho Gakuen and finished the game with no hits in five at-bats. He lost to Toho High School in the Aichi prefecture tournament final in the summer and did not participate in Koshien. In the draft, he was not selected by Chunichi, the team he wished to join, and ended up joining the Orix team as a fourth-round draft pick. After joining Orix, he was known for his distinct batting form and initially faced adversity as he was not highly evaluated by the team's leadership.
These players were far from elite. It's fascinating to see such individuals later accumulate skills and make their mark on Major League Baseball history.
According to a study by Erika Yamashita, a researcher at the Medical Governance Research Institute, a total of 66 Japanese players have transferred from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to MLB to date, with most leaving MLB after a few years. Only 15 players (23%) remained for more than five years, and a mere 6 players (9%) stayed for more than eight years. Apart from Ichiro, Uehara, Nomo, and Matsui, there were only two others: Satoru Komiyama (1997-2005, Anaheim Angels, and others) and Tomokazu Ohka (1997-2009, Boston Red Sox, and others). While both did not particularly stand out during their time in Japan, they share a trait of extreme diligence in research with Ichiro, Nomo, Kuroda, and Uehara.
The Role of Independent Thought and Perseverance in Achieving MLB Success
I wonder how they managed to acquire such skills. Their trials and tribulations have already been reported on extensively in the media, so I will not go into detail here. However, these players did not simply take the words of their coaches and managers at face value, but rather thought for themselves and grew as a result. This process of trial and error might be indispensable for human growth.
In my personal opinion, players graduating from the prestigious high schools of Japanese baseball, such as PL Gakuen, Yokohama, and Osaka Toin, have not been as successful in MLB compared to their success in NPB. So far, out of the 66 Japanese major leaguers, 9 are graduates of these three schools, but none of them have made a big splash.
Even Daisuke Matsuzaka, after his third year of transfer to the MLB, ceased to win games. He transferred to the Boston Red Sox in 2007, earning 15 wins, followed by 18 wins the next year. However, his total wins in the six years from then until he left the MLB in 2014 were just 23. Mr. Sawai says, "In the MLB, opponents study you thoroughly and leave you exposed quickly." Even Matsuzaka was no exception.
Why don't graduates of PL Gakuen, Yokohama High School, and Osaka Toin High School succeed in the MLB? To keep succeeding in the MLB, players have to keep evolving, and to do so, they have no choice but to think for themselves. Perhaps this training is not sufficiently implemented in these prestigious schools where a player development system aiming for success in NPB is established.
Groups that gather players with superior physical abilities, provide special training, and accumulate know-how can win without difficulty by just doing the usual. This is tradition. However, once they get used to this situation, it won't work at higher levels.
The Parallels Between Baseball and Medicine in Cultivating Independent Thinkers
This provides intriguing insights when considering the approach to education. Probably, this applies not only to baseball. I say this with a sense of self-admonition, but individuals who have moved on from the private school Nada High School, where I graduated, to the Department of Natural Science III at the University of Tokyo, don't seem to achieve much afterwards.
Since the University of Tokyo started its entrance examination for the Department of Natural Science III in 1962, about 800 people from Nada High School have passed. This is about twice the number of the second-ranked high school and puts us far ahead. However, up until now, only two have become professors in major clinical departments, when normally, there should be more than ten times that number.
Indeed, there are unique individuals among the doctors who graduated from Nada High School and UTokyo Medical School, such as Dr. Hideki Wada, the best-selling author of 2022, and Ryuichi Yoneyama, a member of the House of Representatives, but many UTokyo Medical School graduates do not aspire to become professors at their alma mater. Becoming a professor at UTokyo is not the only model of success, but these figures are rather disappointing.
I believe this situation resembles the inability of graduates from prestigious baseball schools like PL Gakuen to succeed in MLB. It's probably because the "system" leading up to admission to the UTokyo Department of Natural Science III is so complete that students can get by without thinking for themselves. Moreover, many students and parents are unaware of this. The ability to think independently cannot be acquired through lectures; it can only be developed through repeated trial and error. Tradition has its drawbacks.
So, how can we go about instilling the ability to think for oneself through struggle? I would like to discuss this in the next issue.
This article was originally published in Japanese in Shinchosha Foresight on May 2, 2023.